Every off-season, you worry the Sharks are finally going to put it together and get that one piece that will finally put them over the hump where they can coast to a Stanley Cup victory that they've been sniffing at for almost a decade now. They joke of them choking in the playoffs every year has to end at some point, right? Maybe? After making a few moves this summer though, the Sharks stumbled out of the gate a bit, going 1-4 to start the season. Of course that was followed by a 5 game winning streak. So with the train back on the rails, the Sharks have once again assumed their place atop the Pacific conference where we knew they'd sit.
It may look like the Kings are nipping at their heels but the Sharks have a three point lead while having played four fewer games. In fact, the Sharks have played the fewest games in the NHL so far (well... tied with Boston) but they have they're 9th in the league in points. But the problem is that they've seemed to find their stride. They haven't lost in regulation yet this year and are 7-1-2 in their last 10. They're getting some big contributions from Patrick Marleau who has ten points in eight games. Outside of that, it's the usual story - the Sharks forwards are big and can be pretty nasty. The Sharks have only 3 forwards shorter than 6'0" - Benn Ferriero, Torrey Mitchell and Joe Pavelski. Of the three, only Pavelski poses any real threat as the Versteeg lookalike has 31 points on the year. The rest of the Sharks forward squad uses their size to crash the net for rebounds, block the sight lines for opposing goalies (something that could be a major problem given the struggles of our netminders of late) and make life hell for the defense as they try to break out of their own zone.
Of course, that's not always the case. For as imposing as the Sharks can be, they can also skate with some of the best teams in the league. There are plenty of nights where the Sharks forget their size and play the finesse game they're also fairly capable at. Getting the Sharks to try and skate with them is the Hawks best chance at winning (as it is against most teams most nights). The Sharks defense has it's holes and it'll be up to the Hawks to try and take advantage of them.
Thomas Greiss was in the net last night for the Sharks as they struggled to beat the Blue Jackets, meaning we're very likely to see our old friend Antti Niemi against Razor today. Niemi has put together a solid year for the Sharks so far with a .920sv% and 2.26GAA and put up a shut out in his last outing against the Jets. Niemi evidently has some sour feelings towards Chicago after the Stanly Cup run - he's put together a 4-1-1 record against the Hawks in his 6 starts against his former team with a .926Sv%.
For the Hawks - they're coming off a tough loss to Scum yesterday. As Sam pointed out, it was almost a mirror image to the last week's game only without the Hawks able to cap off the win in OT. It was a game the Hawks seemed to have no chance of winning after the first 20 yet the eeked out a point. That has plenty of call backs to the last game against the Sharks where the Hawks were pretty thoroughly dominated for the first two periods but found a way to force OT with a last minute goal. In that game though, Sharp netted the winner in OT to steal the extra point when the Hawks didn't deserve it. And of course the first match up of this year wasn't too far off from that either with more role reversal. In the traditional Black Wednesday game, the Hawks were the better of the two but simply couldn't beat Niemi.
So both the match-ups between the Sharks and Hawks this year have been close one goal affairs and I doubt we're in for anything different tonight. For a while we were lamenting the lack of secondary scoring but things are beginning to turn the other direction as the stars of the Hawks have been a little too quiet lately. Hossa is on a four-game point streak but is without a goal in 2012, Toews is playing well but hasn't been lighting up the scoresheet the way he was earlier in the year, Patrick Kane's struggles are well documented and Patrick Sharp has been fucking invisible since scoring against Detroit on the 8th of this month. The fact that the Hawks are putting together points without these men finding the back of the net is encouraging but they'll need to start it up again if they want to continue. Both teams are on the end of a back-to-back so both teams could come out with heavy legs in the third. At that point, the game could come down to one of those cliches like "who wants it more". With the Hawks still not out of their struggles, lets hope it's them.
Let's Go Hawks